Will Chinese House Churches Survive the Latest Government Crackdown?

In this photo taken Monday, June 4, 2018, Chinese calligraphy which reads “All nations belong to the Lord arising to shine” at left and “Jesus’s salvation spreads to the whole world” at right are displayed below a crucifix in a house church shut down by authorities near the city of Nanyang in central China’s Henan province. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

This week, China sentenced Early Rain Covenant Church pastor Wang Yi to nine years in prison. This conviction was the latest attack on jiating (house church) congregations and came a year after officials took more than 100 leaders and members of the prominent congregation into custody. The round-up had come on the heels of the government shutting down Beijing Zion Church, one of China’s capital largest house churches, after the congregation refused to install surveillance cameras in its sanctuary. The crackdown on Beijing Zion marked the beginning of a new campaign by the Chinese Communist party-state to eliminate all jiating churches in China. With these high-profile forced closure of several prominent jiating congregations, the Chinese authorities have now begun zeroing in on the lesser known but numerous jiating churches throughout China.

Many Chinese Christians belong to a distinct type of Protestant churches called jiating churches, which are often translated as “house churches,” “family churches,” or “home churches.” Although expedient, these are inadequate translations. The Chinese word jiating could mean family, home, or house, and “house” is the least commonly used meaning, so referring to these churches as “house churches” is a misnomer. The members of such churches often regard their church as jia, which means the family or the home associated with a sense of familial belonging and close-knit fellowship. The physical structure of a house is the least important and may change from time to time. As the meaning of a jiating church is closer to a “congregation” than a church building, I adopt the transliteration and refer to these churches as jiating churches.

Jiating churches have undergone several phases of development, beginning as underground bodies, snowballing from private gatherings in homes to congregations of hundreds, and pivoting from passive avoidance of the authorities to actively seeking registration with the government. With the exception of the Cultural Revolution, when all religious institutions were eradicated, jiating churches have generally stood independent from and parallel to the officially sanctioned “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

Surviving: the 1950s to 1970s

On August 7, 1955, Rev. Wang Mingdao of the independent Christian Tabernacle church in Beijing was arrested for refusing to join the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” committee. Wang was one of several Christian leaders who opposed the Three-self committee for various reasons, including the political nature of the party-engineered movement and the modernist theology of some Three-self leaders. “Three-elf” technically refers to self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. But in reality, the movement was the engineered campaign to fold churches under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). (The word “patriotic” in it actually meant loyalty to the CCP.) During the initial campaign, the CCP forced every church to cut off organizational and financial ties with foreign missionary organizations and churches in the West. By 1954, the Three-Self committees were officially established at the national level and some local levels.

Despite tremendous pressure to join the Three-Self committee, Wang defiantly published an essay titled “Obey Man or Obey God?” in a 1954 issue of Spiritual Food Quarterly. He argued that Christians ought to obey institutions only when the powers that be are not opposed to God’s commandments. In his view, the government had no right to interfere in the Christian life of Communion and evangelism. In the following year, Wang published another essay, titled “We are for Faith,” which expressed his firm opposition to modernist liberal theology and charged some Three-Self leaders as nonbelievers. In 1955, Wang and his wife were arrested and charged with “counterrevolution.” The event coincided with many Christians leaving Three-Self churches to hold Sunday worship and prayer meetings at private homes. The jiating church movement was born.

In 1958, about a decade after Chairman Mao Zedong took power, the government disbanded Christian denominations and churches were agglomerated under the Three-Self committee, which assigned pastors and preachers to churches. During the subsequent political campaigns of the Great Leap Forward and the Socialist Education Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many Three-Self churches closed. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Mao Zedong’s youth mobs called Red Guards ransacked many churches and shuttered every religious site across China. The de facto ban of religion lasted for 13 years until 1979.

Nevertheless, Christianity survived through underground worship and prayers at homes, caves, woods, and crop fields. Such religious gatherings were illegal and the punishments could be severe, including shame parades, labor camps, and prison terms. Surprisingly, recent oral history that I and other researchers have conducted indicate that Christian revivals proliferated even during the heydays of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. By the 1970s, jiating churches began expanding rapidly in the eastern and central provinces of Zhejiang, Henan, and Anhui. By the end of the 1970s, the total number of Protestant Christians reached from 5 to 6 million, according to the estimates of historian Daniel Bays. Mao Zedong’s policy of religious eradication failed.

Thriving: the 1980s to 1990s

Following the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping rose to paramount power in the CCP and launched a series of social and economic reforms. Beginning in 1979, the party-state allowed some churches, temples, and mosques to reopen to rally citizens toward economic development. In addition to restoring the Three-Self committee, the Christian Council was established to manage internal church affairs and improve public relations with churches abroad. Nevertheless, this council became a de facto wing of the Three-Self committee, and together they became known as lianghui (two councils).

The new policy of limited religious freedom was formalized in the revised constitution and the CCP Document 19 of 1982, which had ambiguous wording on Christian gatherings at homes. While many underground Christians joined the reopened Three-Self churches, many others refused to join due to the political nature of these churches and the apostasy of some Three-Self officials who joined radicals to suppress Christians during the Cultural Revolution. Thereafter, some Three-Self leaders, including its top leader, Bishop Ding Guangxun, attempted to articulate the delicate position of discouraging but nonetheless allowing home gatherings. In the following three decades, the CCP intermittently persuaded, pressured, and repressed jiating churches.

In response, the primary strategy of jiating churches in the 1980s and 1990s was evasion from authorities. During crackdowns, some Christians fled to other counties and continued evangelizing there. Many testimonials and reports have circulated among Chinese Christians and around the world about the hide-and-seek relationship of jiating churches and the police.

Some jiating church networks in rural Henan, Anhui, and Zhejiang became well organized and sent out evangelists to faraway provinces, including the borderlands in southwestern and northeastern China. These jiating church leaders attributed to God miraculous protection and evangelistic harvests, which evoked comparisons to early Christians fleeing Jerusalem for Antioch and beyond.

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Source: Christianity Today